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Tempu dulu

Stumbled out of bed, missed my train, now nursing a big mug of coffee while staring bleary-eyed at my monitor: I stayed up way past my bedtime again, and on a weekday too, but I just couldn't put down Nan Dibble's excellent Enemy of my Enemy before I'd reached the tbc. That story packs a powerful punch, and draws you in completely. And personally, I think it's even better than its predecessor.

Went round to my Mum's before that, and had dinner. She showed me a newspaper clipping and after I had read it, asked "You don't think I'm being silly for wanting this, do you?"

The article was about a newly realised housing project for senior citizens in our town, and there already being more applications by people wanting to come and live there than there are flats available. The housing corporation has therefore decided to extend the project, and is calling for everyone who is interested and meets the criteria to apply. Mum meets those criteria. She's over 65, neither too rich nor too poor, still has her health, and most importantly, was born and raised in the Dutch East Indies (=presentday Indonesia). This housing project is exclusively set up to cater to the senior citizens of what we call our Indian community.
I looked at Mum, suddenly noticing how small and frail she looked; how Asian too: thin-boned, yellow-skinned...Although my colouring is dark, physically I take after the European side of the family, but I rarely really notice the difference. I think of myself as Indian too, although this identity doesn't come in first place with me as I realised long ago it does with my mother. "Go for it, Mum. I think you should," I said.

Mum then began to speak animatedly about the prospect of a pasar (=market) being organised on the terrain, regular kumpulan2 (=get together with lots of food and music and dance) and maybe a wajang theatre or a gamelan orchestra in the communal area, and none of the neighbours complaining of the smell of trassi (=a foodstuff, made of fermented shrimp) in the morning. People that she could speak to in Malaysian or pidgin, that she could share her history and experiences with, that would understand where she was coming from in any given situation. Because now, she said, all she has is her sisters, and they're both older than she.

Mum was born halfway around the world, in what used to be the jewel in the Dutch empire's crown. After the horrors of the Japanese occupation and the prison camps, in one of which her father was murdered, followed by the period known as the Bersiap in Indonesian history, in which Europeans and Eurasians were slaughtered wholesale by Suharto's revolutionaries, and as so many of the old colonials who refused to exchange their Dutch nationality and citizenship for the Indonesian, they were booted out of the country in 1950 and arrived in the cold and alien mother country with nothing but the clothes they stood up in. After a sojourn of some 300 years in the tropics, the Van Galen family were back in The Netherlands, penniless, against their will and with an immense heartache for the country and the people (and the fortune) they'd had to leave behind. It was 46 years before Mum went back...and then returned to Holland completely cured of the homesickness she'd carried with her for all those years. Third world conflicted Indonesia is not the prosperous well-ordered Dutch East Indies of her youth and memory.

So I understand why she might like to spend her twilight years among people who share her background, remember tempu dulu (=the good old days) and also celebrate Liberation Day on August 15 instead of May 5, when the Dutch have their national holiday. I hope she doesn't have to wait too long before her new flat will be built!


Jul. 10th, 2003 12:35 am (UTC)
Oh, and when you mentioned that your mother realised that Canada was her home after 9/11, it reminded me of how my mother finally let go of her unrealistic picture of the Indies and accepted The Netherlands as hers, after she went back there for the first time in 1996. I remember that at the time, it felt a little bit sad to see that she had given up on her dream, but also I couldn't deny that I was secretly pleased that she had finally come to accept and admit that she loved my country, too.